Almost a Tragedy
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
It is now about five years since I met with a little adventure in the West, which may be worth relating. It caused me a good deal of excitement at first; regrets afterward for the temporary pain I inflicted, and many a hearty laugh since. New things come up so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep the run of them, and it is not at all surprising that those who are content to go along in the good old way, should now and then be caught napping. I own that I was, completely.
Business took me out West, in the spring of 1846, and kept me in Ohio for the entire summer of that year. After a hard day's ride, in the month of August, I entered, just before nightfall, a certain town lying on the National Road, where I expected to remain for a week. After taking possession of my room at the hotel; shaving, washing, and improving my appearance in other respects, I came down and took a seat in the porch that ran along the front of the house. I had not been here very long before the stage from the East drove up, and the passengers, who were to take supper, as this was a stage-house, alighted.
Among them, I noticed a woman with a pale, emaciated, and, I would have said, dying child in her arms. Her face was anxious and haggard in its expression. She was accompanied by a man, whom I rightly supposed to be her husband. He immediately went to the bar and engaged a room, saying that his child was too sick to permit them to continue their journey.
"Do you wish a doctor?" asked the landlord.
"No," replied the man. "We have medicine, prescribed by our own physician before we left home. If that does no good, we have little confidence in any other remedies."
No more was said. The man was shown to his room, where he retired with his wife and sick child. The room, it so happened, was next to mine, and the two rooms communicated by a door, which was of course closed and fastened.
The emaciated child and anxious mother presented a sight that fixed itself upon my mind, and excited my liveliest sympathies. I could not get them from my thoughts.
About ten o'clock that night, I took a candle and went to my room. Before undressing myself, I sat down at a table to make some entries of collections and expenses, and to think over and arrange my business for the next day. All was still, except now and then a slight movement in the next chamber, where the parents were sitting up with their sick child.
"What did you give him last?" I heard the father say, in a low, but distinct tone.
"Aconite," was as distinctly replied.
This I knew to be a deadly poison. I listened, you may be sure, with a more earnest attention.
"How many grains?" was next asked.
"Two," replied the mother.
Two grains of aconite! My hair began to rise. "I think we had better increase the dose to five grains."
"It's an hour since he took the last, and I see no change," said the mother. "Perhaps we had better try the arsenic."
My blood ran cold at this murderous proposition. I felt like starting up, bursting open the door, and confronting them in their dreadful work. But, as if spell-bound, I remained where I was. To the last proposition, the man replied — "I would rather see the aconite tried in a larger dose. If, in half an hour, there is no visible effect from it, then we will resort to the arsenic."
"If you think it best," said the mother, in a low sad voice — (well she might be sad over such awful work) — "let us try the aconite again, but in a larger dose. You will find it on the mantelpiece."
I heard the deliberate tread of the man, as he crossed the room for a larger dose of the poison, while I hurriedly deliberated the question of what I should do. Before I could make up my mind to act, I heard his returning step. A few moments of awful stillness followed. I felt as if I were in the center of a sphere, with the gravitating forces from every point of the circumference upon me. I don't think I could have moved a limb to save my life.
"There, let us see what they will do," came distinctly upon my ear.
Gracious Heaven! the deed was done. Five grains of aconite given to the tender child, already on the verge of death! The cold sweat came out over my whole body, and stood in clammy drops upon my forehead. All was still. Death was doing his awful work in silence. I sat motionless, under the influence of a strange irresolution or imbecility of mind, unable to determine what steps to take in a matter where all now seems as plain to me as daylight. I do not know what came over me. The fact only shows how, when placed in certain positions, we become paralyzed, and unable to act even with common decision. I remember saying to myself, as a justification for not interfering at this stage of the proceedings —
"It is too late now. Five and three are eight. Eight grains of aconite! There is no longer a vestige of hope for the child. Death is as certain as if a bullet were fired through the sufferer's head!"
I did not stir from where I sat, but tried to hush my deep breathing, and quiet the loud pulsations of my heart, lest even they should be heard and betray my proximity to the wretches.
Half an hour passed. There was a movement, and the murmuring sound of voices — but, though I listened eagerly, I was not able to make out what was said. I heard the tread of a man across the floor, and I also heard his return. I thought of the arsenic, and said to myself, at the same time, "They will not need that!" The woman was speaking. I listened.
"Was that the arsenic?"
"How many grains did you give him?"
"I meant to give him three, but, in mistake, gave him six or seven."
It was too late, now, for any interference. But, I was determined that the wretches should not escape. I was an ear-witness to their murderous act, and I resolved to bring them to the light. While I thus mused and resolved, I was thrilled by a long, tremulous cry from the dying child. All was again as still as death, except for an occasional deep sob, that seemed bursting up from the remnant of stifled nature in the mother's bosom.
Again that cry arose suddenly on the air, but feebler and shorter. The mother's sob now became a moan, and soon changed to a low, wailing cry. Her child was dead. The fatal drugs had too surely done their murderous work. But why should she weep over the precious babe which her own hand had destroyed? and why came there, now and then, from that chamber of death, a deep sighing moan, struggling up in spite of all efforts to repress it, from the breast of the miserable father? Strange enigma! I could not read, satisfactorily to myself, the difficult solution.
I still remained quiet where I was. In a little while I heard the father go out, and listened to his footsteps until they became lost in silence. Soon the hasty tread of several feet were heard, and two or three females entered the room. Their presence caused the woman to cry bitterly.
"False-hearted, cruel wretch!" I could not help muttering to myself. "Hypocritical cries and crocodile tears will not hide your crime! An ear of which you dreamed not, has heard your hellish plots, and been witness to your hellish deeds upon the body of your poor babe! You cannot escape. The voice of blood cries from the very ground. The hope of the murderer is vain. He cannot hide himself from the pursuer."
For half the night, I lay awake, thinking of what had occurred, and settling in my mind the course of proceeding to adopt in the morning. I was up long before sunrise — in fact, long before anybody else was stirring — awaiting the appearance of the landlord, to whom it was my intention to give information of the dreadful deed that had been committed. Fully an hour elapsed before he made his appearance. I immediately drew him aside.
"There has been a death in the house!" said I.
"Yes," he replied. "The poor sick child that was brought here by the Eastern stage last evening died in the night. I did not suppose it would live until morning. To me, it seemed in a dying state when its parents arrived."
"There has been foul play," said I, with emphasis. "That child has not died a natural death."
"How so? What do you mean?" asked the landlord, with a look of surprise.
"I mean what I say," was my reply. "As sure as I am a living man, that child has been murdered!" I then related all I had heard, to the horror and astonishment of the landlord.
"A deed like this must not go unpunished," he said, sternly and angrily. "It is horrible to think of it."
After talking over the matter for some time, it was determined to call a council of half a dozen of the regular boarders in the house, as soon as breakfast was over, and decide upon the steps best to be taken. Accordingly, after breakfast, a few of us assembled in a private parlor, and I again related, with minuteness, all that I had heard. After sundry expressions of horror and indignation, a gentleman said to me — "Are you sure it was grains or granules — of aconite and arsenic that were given to the child?"
"Grains, sir!" I replied, promptly.
"This is a serious matter," he added; "and if there should be any mistake, it would be sad indeed to harrow the feelings of those bereaved parents by so dreadful a charge as that of the murder of their own offspring. My own impression is, that our friend here is under a mistake."
"Can't I believe my own ears, sir?" said I, a little indignantly.
"Don't misunderstand me," returned the gentleman, politely. "I don't doubt you have heard all you say, and it may be even to the word grains; but I am under the impression that the arsenic and aconite given were in the homoeopathic preparations, and therefore no longer poisonous."
There was a long pause after this was said; everyone present seemed to breathe more freely. I had heard of homoeopathy, and something about infinitesimal doses, but had never seen the medicine used, neither did I know anything about the mode in which it was sometimes practiced.
"Suppose we send for the man," suggested the landlord, "and question him — but in a way not to wound him, if he is innocent."
This, after some debate, was agreed upon, and a servant was sent to his room with a request that he would come to the parlor. He obeyed the summons instantly, but looked a good deal surprised when he saw a grave assembly of six or seven people. The gentleman who had expressed the doubt in the man's favor, said to him, as soon as he had taken his seat — "We have learned, sir, with sincere regret, that you were so unfortunate as to lose your child last night — a severe affliction. Though strangers, we deeply sympathize with you."
The man expressed his thanks, in a few words, for the kind feelings manifested, and said that, as it was their only child, they felt the affliction more severely, but were still willing to submit to the loss, as a Divine dispensation, grievous to be borne, yet intended for good.
"You did not call in a physician," said the individual who had at first addressed him.
"No," replied the man. "Before starting for Cincinnati, yesterday morning, we learned that, no matter how ill our child might become, we could not get the advice of a homoeopathic physician until we reached home, and we were not willing to trust our child in the hands of any other. We, therefore, before commencing our journey, obtained medicine, and advice how to administer it should alarming symptoms occur."
"In powders, I suppose?"
"No, sir; in little, grains or pellets, like these."
And he drew from his pocket a diminutive vial, the smallest I had ever seen, in which were a number of little white granules, about the size of the head of a pin. A printed label was wound around the vial, and it bore the word "Arsenicum." It passed from hand to hand, and all read it.
"You gave this?" said the volunteer spokesman.
"Yes, sir; that and aconite."
"How much is a dose?"
"From one to five or six grains."
The little bottle was returned to the man, who placed it in his pocket. A pause ensued. The truth was plain enough to us all. The individual whose sagacity, or better information about what was going on in the world, had saved a most painful denouement to this affair, said to the man, in a way as little as possible calculated to wound his feelings —
"You are, of course, surprised at this proceeding — this seemingly wanton intrusion upon your grief. But you will understand it when I tell you, that a lodger, in a room adjoining yours, who knew nothing of homoeopathy, heard you speak of giving your child several grains of aconite and arsenic. You can easily infer the impression upon his mind. This morning, he related what he had heard, when an individual here present, who suspected the truth, suggested that you be sent for and asked the questions which you have so satisfactorily answered. Do not, let me beg of you, feel hurt. What we have done, was but an act of justice to yourself."
The man smiled sadly, and, thanking us with eyes fast filling with tears, rose up quickly to conceal his emotion, and retired from the room.
"Landlord," said I, an hour afterwards, "I want my belongings taken out of No. 10, and put into some other room."
"Why so? Isn't the room a pleasant one?"
"Oh, yes; but I'd like a change."
"Very well; we'll put you in No. 16."
I was the "lodger in the room adjoining," and didn't, therefore, wish to appear on the premises and be known by the man, as the getter up of a suspicion against him. I did not come to dinner, and kept out of the way until after dark.
When I returned to the hotel, I was relieved to find that the bereaved parents had departed with the dead body of their child. But the whole company were now at liberty to laugh at what had occurred to their hearts' content, and to laugh at me in particular. I stood it that evening, as well as I could; but finding, on the next day, that it was renewed with as keen a zest as ever, I concluded to close up my business on the spot, and leave the place — which I did.